Red Waters Rising
Isobel had traveled from the low plains to the high reaches of the Mother’s Knife, through storm and sun and snow, but the past few days had found her limit. “It’s winter,” she said, not for the first time. “Why is it still so warm?”
“Welcome to the southlands,” Calico Zac said with a shrug. “You get used to it.” Both Isobel and Gabriel gave him a side-eye at that, and he laughed.
They had met up with the native Rider a week earlier, traveling through Nanatsoho lands. He had proven a fascinating companion, especially for two Riders well and truly sick of each others’s stories, but spoke little of himself, saying only that he’d been gone from home for some time, and offering to keep them company along the Road if they were heading in the same direction.
They had been. Although Isobel was having deep second thoughts about Gabriel’s insistence that the winter months would best be spent traveling the southern swing of the Territory, if it was all like this.
The morning sun dappled through still-green branches overhead, the Road stretching clear and flat ahead of them, following the slight curve of the stream that Zac said would lead them to their destination. But despite the shade, the air was thick and heavy with moisture, making the simple act of breathing exhausting and leaving Isobel with the constant urge to scrape at her skin. She knew it had not in fact begun growing moss to match the sides of the trees bunched up alongside the road, but knowing that and believing it were two vastly different things.
Gabriel made a rueful noise as he mopped the sweat from his brow before tugging his hat back down over his forehead. “He’s right, Iz. You will get used to it. Eventually. And summer’s worse.”
Isobel glared at them both then, using the edge of her own kerchief to wipe the sweat gathering along her hairline. It didn’t help; within minutes, her face was again lightly coated, matching the wetness under her blouse and settling around her waist. Her hat hung from its cord down the back of her neck, the weight of its brown felt too much to bear, even if it meant she had to squint in the occasional spars of bright sunlight coming between the trees.
She glanced at the men riding on either side of her. Gabriel had shed his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves, but Calico Zac seemed utterly unaffected, save for a faint sheen of sweat on his face. Their horses, and the mule following behind, seemed likewise unaffected, their tails swishing lazily at the insects but otherwise showing no signs of distress. She hated them, just a little, just then.
Still, it could have been much worse without their companion to show them what leaves, rubbed on the skin, could dissuade the worst of the insects, and how to tie their bedrolls off the ground at night to catch even the faintest breeze.
Isobel had spent the first sixteen years of her life in the high plains, where storms left the air crisp and clear, and summer heat could be avoided until night fell and things cooled again. Even in the months she’d been on the Road, they’d traveled up into the mountains, where the high summer sun might pink her skin, but never felt particularly warm. She felt as though she’d passed into another world. Maybe the one folk said the devil came from, infernally hot and filled with suffering. Damp suffering.
“We’ll keep the southland for last,” she muttered, mocking Gabriel’s deeper voice. “?‘Avoid the snows, you’ll see enough in your time, no need to rush it.’ You didn’t say anything about the air pretending to be water, or the insects.”
He ducked his head just enough that she knew he was hiding a grin. “Oh, now, they’re not so bad . . .”
“There are beetles. Everywhere.” Specifically, large back beetles in her clothing when she woke up in the morning, and a massive brown spider in the grain she’d been cooking for breakfast.
She had not screamed, but she might have used some words that might have gotten her ears boxed, back home.
“You’ll get used to it,” Calico Zac said again, just as a brightly colored darner swooped and fluttered in front of her, seeming to alight between Uvnee’s ears before shooting off again.
Isobel scowled down at her hands, staring at the ragged edges of her nails, the sun-darkened skin and the dirt ingrained into the leather of Uvnee’s reins, then glanced sideways and saw that Gabriel was smiling, his gaze following the darner as well.
It was the first time she’d seen him smile in days, she realized suddenly. That particular smile, the one that wasn’t about something funny, but a good thought, that made him happy. They’d ridden together long enough that she could tell the difference, and she wondered why—and when—that smile had become rare.
She looked up to see more darners, diving singly and in pairs, skimming low before disappearing into the foliage. Darners were as pretty as butterflies, maybe even more so, Isobel had to admit. And didn’t bite or sting.
“All right,” she admitted, letting the reins go slack on Uvnee’s neck long enough to cross her arms and direct a glare at Zac. “Maybe there’s something to be said for this part of the Territory, too. Still doesn’t make up for finding a widder in my boot this morning.”
The two men glanced at her, but didn’t respond, and she shifted in her saddle, terribly aware of the weight of her skirts and the close fit of her boots. She’d rolled down her stockings the day before, choosing one discomfort over another, but the heat still prickled on her skin, damp and uncomfortable. Uvnee snorted, and she eased on the reins, aware she was holding too tight and the mare was becoming uneasy. “Sorry, girl,” she said. “I’m just . . .”
“The word you’re looking for,” Gabriel said, “is ‘cranky.’?”
She couldn’t deny it. Nor could she avoid the reason for it, far more than the too-damp air or the increase in biting insects.
They weren’t only heading south. They were heading toward a place called Red Stick. A city.
Isobel had never been in a city before. She couldn’t quite imagine it, no matter how many times she’d asked Gabriel, and now Zac, to describe it to her. That many people, all in one place . . .
With all that had been happening in the past few months they were on the Road, all the things they’d dealt with, it was sometimes easy to forget that she was riding for a reason. This was her mentorship ride: She was the Devil’s Left Hand, the physical form of his judgment and protection, and the people of the Territory needed to know her—and she them. She did not have the freedom to say where she might go or where she might stay; she went where she was needed, same as any of the devil’s tools.
And the southernmost corner of the Territory was important. The Mother’s Knife held the silver mines and kept the Spaniards from invading in force from the west, but they were inhospitable, even for the native tribes; few people lived there year round. The plains were kinder, but the largest town they’d visited had held no more than a few thousand souls, and more often they saw farm-groupings, two or three families gathering together for protection and company without quite forming a town.
The southern edge of the Territory was different.
Isobel unhooked her canteen, taking a mouthful of the warm, flat water, and thought glumly of frost-covered fields and the snap of snow in the air. Not that she wanted particularly to be caught in a blizzard or even wake up covered in overnight snow—a thing that had happened once, which was once too often for her—but those options seemed more pleasurable than this.
She took another mouthful of water, forcing it down her throat. The mule, who had been following behind at a sluggishly resigned pace ever since the native and his dun pony had joined them, came up alongside and nipped at her sleeve.
“You want some water, boy?” she asked, and squirted a little onto its muzzle. Long ears flicked at her, and he pushed his muzzle against her arm before moving off, his dusty sides rippling with a shudder. She would have to give him extra attention when they made camp, she decided; he was as sulky as a small child.
“Zac. Tell me more about your people,” Gabriel said. “You said your tribe was small?”
“Small, and likely gone by now,” the other man admitted, the saddle under him creaking as he shifted, and Isobel thought that he was uncomfortable with the question. “We did not have enough to offer other tribes to join with us, and so my cousins made families elsewhere.”
“And you took to the Road.”
“And I took to the Road,” he agreed. “And now I return.”
Neither Gabriel nor Isobel pressed further. A man’s—or woman’s—past was their own.
Before they could change the subject, the horses walked around a thick clump of thick-trunked trees whose branches spread out like something with far too many arms, and the sparse trail they had been on was crossed by a much wider road, ruts in the packed-down dirt indicating that wagons had passed along here often enough to leave wear.
Isobel exhaled, pressing down through her heels, letting her awareness sink slowly into the deep, rich soil beneath her, the way Gabriel had taught her. Something pulsed in response, the feel of it as strong and familiar as Uvnee’s hoofbeats.
“Not so much a greenie anymore,” Gabriel said, watching her with an odd smile. “Stretching for the Road like a proper vagabond.”
The Road: not a single road but the interconnected trails and paths, the ever-running medicine that ran the length and width of the Territory, looping and turning on itself, power constant and free—save where it bottled up at a crossroads. A Rider could never be lost, so long as they could feel the Road beneath them.
But with the Road came crossroads.
Calico Zac reached into his pocket, as though searching for something, but Gabriel put a hand out to halt him. “No need,” he said, and nodded at Isobel.
A wise Rider always checked the way with silver. Crossroads caught power, and even a sparsely traveled one such as this could hold danger. Silver warned, and cleared. It wasn’t foolproof, but if you were not a fool, it was safe enough.
But Gabriel called her the devil’s own silver for a reason.
She dropped from the saddle, feeling the ache in her hips and knees as she did so, the weight of her skirt almost surprising, after so many hours in the saddle. The moment her boots touched dirt, the feeling of the Road ahead of them intensified, and she let herself reach out, not deep but along the surface, half-braced for the tingle of something pooling within the crossroads.
“It’s clean,” she said, pushing down the faint feeling of disappointment. “A marshal must have been by recently to clear it out.” That was what marshals did; they kept the Road clear and safe, as well as sorting any rumblings of trouble or mischance off the roads.
“Or a magician,” Gabriel said. “Can you tell?”
She shook her head. “It’s just clean. No trace of anything left.”
Clean but not empty, not the way the northern hills had been, where magicians had done such damage. She tried not to think of those places; she had left them warded, but it would take the devil himself riding out to put them to rights, she thought, if even he could.
“Then back up in the saddle,” Gabriel said, “and let’s move on. Zac, how much farther until we reach the limits of your peoples’ lands?”
“Not far, I think.” He shrugged when they both looked at him. “It’s been many years. Landmarks change. Look for marked posts. That will tell us who claims an area.”
“Individual tribes, not the confederation of tribes as a whole?” Gabriel sounded fascinated, so Isobel tried to pay attention.
“The confederation is, how you say it, política? Politics. Boundaries are personal.”
“That’s not . . .ow can that be? Borders are inherently political . . .” Gabriel shook his head, kneeing his gelding closer to argue with Zac. Isobel left them to it, letting them lead the way as she traced the Road forward and back, as far as she could reach before the feeling faded into dusty nothingness.
The Mudwater should run just a few days southwest of them, she thought, remembering the map Gabriel had laid out the last night they’d slept under a roof, tracing the path they’d come and the route they’d take. The Mudwater, where the Boss had first stood, so long ago, and told conquistadors, ‘Go no farther.’ Although, knowing the boss, Isobel thought he’d used rougher words than that. . . .
To the east of the river lay the United States. Farther south, she knew, Spain claimed both the spread hand of the delta itself and the waterways beyond, demanding a high price for any who tried to sail them. And both nations eyed the Territory like it was their birthright, sticking fingers to test the boss’s resolve.
She had slapped several of those fingers back herself but never once seen the Mudwater itself. Gabriel had taken them north, and then west, not south or east. Not until now.
Not until she was ready, she supposed. And still, he told her nothing of what to expect.
Gabriel was her mentor, her teacher, as well as a friend. But she’d learned that he had too much in common with the boss in that they both seemed to think that teaching her to swim meant tossing her into the creek so she could figure out how not to drown.
But Zac was with them now. He was neither teacher nor guardian but a fellow Rider. He might give her a different answer.
“You grew up here,” she said, into a moment when neither of them were speaking. “Tell me about Red Stick.”
She had difficulty reading natives as easily as settlers; they had different expressions, different tells, the boss called them, and a few days’ riding together was not enough to learn his particulars, but it seemed almost as though he hesitated before giving a sideways shrug.
“I’m not sure what much more I can speak to. As I said—”
“It’s been a long time since you were home, I know. So, what was it like then?”
“Busy. It was always busy. Boats using the Mudwater stop there to sell and buy, then go back up- or cross-river, back and forth. There are always strangers coming and going.”
“That means if something’s happening, Red Stick knows it first,” Gabriel added, and Zac made a hand gesture of agreement. “Gossip is one of the things bought and sold.”
Isobel rested her hand on Uvnee’s neck, feeling the rough warmth of the mare’s coat, the coarse, scratchy hairs of her mane passing over the tops of her fingers. Traveling by boat sounded terrifying; she’d never seen anything larger than a trapper’s dugout, never even stepped in one of those. The Americans claimed the river as theirs. The boss just laughed and said they could try to hold it, for all the good it would do them. The Mudwater was its own.
“Who do they trade with cross-river?” They had seen a few farmholdings as they traveled but nothing that might interest traders, she thought.
“There’s an American fortification just on the other side, and of course there’s Liberdad.”
Isobel nodded, feeling something tighten in her gut. Those were two very good reasons for her to become familiar with this area: any place where American military gathered could become a problem at any time, and Liberdad could be the spark that lit that trouble.
Back home, Iktan told stories about Liberdad, although she didn’t believe he had ever been there. Beholden to no one, the city rested between a bend in the Mudwater and a massive lake that was fed by the sea itself, and was home to pirates, freebooters, and whatever navy paid them enough for berthing—Spanish, American, even the English and French. And once through their gates, the entire Mudwater—and the Territory’s less-defended border—could be laid open.
The boss stepped carefully around Liberdad, and they paid him the same respect. She had never questioned the stability of that—until now.
The thought was uncomfortable. Too many of her thoughts were uncomfortable these days. She pushed it down with the others and reached back to pull her hat up, settling it firmly on her head as though to protect her from further distractions. “But what is it like?”
Gabriel’s gelding turned his arched neck to look at her; her voice might have gotten a touch high-pitched in her exasperation. She made a face at the horse, and one of its ears flicked at her as though it were laughing.
“Large,” Gabriel said finally, when their companion was silent. “Nowhere near the size of a city in the States, of course, but larger than anything you’ve ever seen before. Crowded. And crowded with people who came here from all different places, for all different reasons. All sorts of people, not all of whom would be given pause by that sigil in your hand.”
The native Rider glanced at her hands where they held Uvnee’s reins, and she let go with her left hand, pressing the palm flat against her thigh instinctively, as though to hide the markings there. The thick black lines were a reminder of what she had asked for, the Bargain she had made for it nearly a year earlier. Power, and respect.
The devil didn’t ask for more than you could pay. But all she’d had to pay with had been herself. And while power might rest in the palm of her hand, respect had to be earned. Face-to-face, and hand-to-hand.
She’d never had to face so many people at once.
“This is a test, isn’t it?”
She heard a faint, familiar huff of laughter from Gabriel. “Everything’s a test, Isobel. Red Stick’s a port city, for good and for ill, and a frontier town into the bargain. You don’t control places like that, you just hope for the best.”
“Thank you for your reassurances,” she said tartly, knowing that it would only make him laugh more. She looked up to see Calico Zac watching them curiously, and for a second she wondered what he might look like out of his standard-issue rider’s gear of dustcoat and trou, if his people wore deerskin or woven cloth, if the beaded hatband he wore was the style of his tribe or something he had acquired in his riding, if his people wore their hair longer, or if his short-cropped hair was more usual.
Her thoughts made her frown, wondering where they came from, and Gabriel misinterpreted her expression, moving Steady over a pace so his knee bumped up against hers.
“You’re ready for this, Isobel. Learn it. Learn them. Let them learn you. Local tribes, too.” He cast a glance at Zac, who was still watching them both. “We’ll spend the winter here, then ride the Muddy back up north in the spring.”
She heard something odd in his voice, but before she had a chance to ask, Calico Zac stiffened, lifting his head as though he’d heard something, and Gabriel put a hand on her leg, a warning pressure to be still and silent.
“Sit ready,” he said, squeezing her leg once before pulling his flintlock, a short-muzzled carbine, from its saddle holster. Steady’s reins were dropped almost casually across the gelding’s neck as Gabriel reached with his other hand for the powder and shot, loading the weapon with dexterity she’d yet to master.
By the time she’d heeded his command, gathering her own reins up in a firm grip and unhooking the strap that held her blade against her own saddle, she heard what had alerted them: hoofbeats, coming hard down the road toward them. Three horses, she guessed, light and fast. Isobel thought of the letter still tucked into her pack, waiting to be handed off, and wondered if the approaching horses carried a post-rider she could hand it over to.
That hope was quashed the moment they came into view. Post-riders were often young, but these were mere boys, riding neck and neck with no regard for anyone else who might be sharing the road with them.
Only at the last minute did one of the riders realize they weren’t alone, and pulled his horse, a tall bay, up hard enough to make Isobel wince. The horse danced under him, exuding resentment that it had been forced to stop, and the other two riders followed suit, if a little less abruptly.
She could practically feel Gabriel’s desire to shoot them, simply for mishandling their horses, and the curl of Zac’s lip suggested he felt the same.
“Easy . . .” she said, soft as though she were speaking to her mare, and Gabriel’s arm eased slightly, the carbine no longer pointing in their direction, although still held ready in the crook of his arm. She could not see what Zac was doing on the other side of Gabriel and Steady’s bulk, but she did not doubt that he had a weapon at the ready as well, likely the horn-handled blade she’d seen him sharpening.
Trusting them to stay calm, she shifted her focus to the newcomers. They were young and male, their heads bare, skin pale enough to tell her they did not work outside, that this was a jaunt for them, briefly released from counter or desk.
There was a tense silence. One heartbeat, then another.
“Bonjou!” the first boy finally called out. “Konmen lé-zafè?”
The words sounded familiar, but meant nothing to Isobel.
“Better for not being knocked over,” Gabriel said tartly, clearly having no trouble understanding them. “Does your papa know how you’re mistreating his cattle?”
That stung, as he’d clearly meant it to, and the boy drew himself up, pushing his horse closer in a high-stepping sideways dance, showing off his control of the beast. “Bo Argent’s mine, and I’ll have a whip to you for presuming otherwise, étranger.”
They’d been speaking French, Isobel realized, although with an accent she had never encountered before. Odd, to hear it spoken this far south, where Gabriel had told her that Spanish or Portuguese, or even Inka-Quechua was more common.
Closer, she could see that the boys were likely near to her own age, their leader wearing a fine white shirt with a banded collar like Gabriel’s, but white as though it had been dipped in bleaching powder only that morning, and his trousers were black and clean, with boots shining underneath.
Money, she thought, Marie’s training allowing her to estimate the cost of everything he wore, likely down to a quarter-coin. Money, and careless with it.
Acadians, she realized. Gabriel had mentioned them briefly. Settlers from the Northern Wilds, where his own people came from; refugees from the war between France and England. While his folk had lingered just within the Territory’s border, Acadians had gone downriver, as far from the remains of war as they could reach.
They had taken their wealth with them, clearly, or rebuilt it in the decades since then.
Isobel wasn’t impressed by her first encounter.
“Peter, hush,” a second boy said, his voice lower, and in English, his desperate glances up at Gabriel making it clear he intended them to be understood. “We near ran them off the road, riding reckless as we were. And if you’d injured Argent, your papa would be the one to lift the whip and land it on your backside, not his.”
“He insulted me,” the first boy retorted, never dropping his own glare from Gabriel. “He and his boys, and their mule,” he added with a sneer, “should be along the side, not taking up the full of the road.”
Isobel sucked at the inside of her cheek to keep from responding, but the third boy did it for her, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “My apologies for my brother, mademoiselle. We only now realize he is blind in one eye and half-witted to boot.”
Only then did the first boy’s gaze flicker to Isobel, then down, finally taking in the fabric of her skirt tucked around her legs, then up to note the swell of her blouse over her bosom. Isobel lifted her chin, eyes narrowing as though to dare him to make further comment.
None of them apologized to Calico Zac, however.
“Pah. Boy or girl, it makes little difference. They are in our way and they must move. After this man apologizes for giving insult.”
There was a pause, letting his words sink in. Giving insult was serious business. Isobel had judged and carried out sentence for that crime, could still feel the drip of their blood on her fingers, for all that she’d never laid hand on them. For this . . . boy to claim Gabriel had given insult . . .
Breath gathered in her mouth to speak, when she glanced sideways and saw that corner of Gabriel’s mouth that had twitched earlier was now pressed flat, not in anger but the need to suppress laughter, and across Steady’s neck she could see Calico Zac’s hands open and close, the trade-sign for “infant” clear in his fingers. And suddenly her own chest was tight with the same, the absurdity of the moment like cool water on her skin, and her temper.
They were only boys, full of themselves and their self-importance, no more a threat than a cattle-hand with one whiskey too many in their belly and hands prone to wander without asking.
“Ah, oui, an apology you have, then,” Gabriel said, and if his words were placating, his voice was merry enough to be taken for further insult. “We are most sorry to have encountered you on the road, and will endeavor to not do so again.”
Gabriel had been trained to the Law, in the States, and when put in the mood could speak circles around his opponents. She had heard him go on in similar manner once, when they’d unwillingly shared a camp-fire with bandits, insulting all within earshot with such graceful language they’d been taken for compliments. But from the way the boy’s eyes widened, he had education and wit enough to recognize it, and pride enough for it to go down the wrong way.
He pulled his shoulders up, staring down his nose at them. “Your name, étranger.”
“Gabriel Kasun.” Names had power, but her mentor gave his as though no power could touch him, as though giving it to these boys was less than whispering it to a tree. Her lips parted in awe at the subtlety of the insult, worthy of the boss at his worst, and tucked it away if she ever needed use it herself. “And these are my companions, Calico Zac”—and the native inclined his head gravely at them—“and Isobel née Lacoyo Távora.”
She tipped her hat at them in perfect mimicry of Gabriel when he played at being card-sharp, taking her cue from his tone.
“But you would best know her by her title,” Gabriel went on. “The Devil’s Hand.”
Isobel had learned that there were three general reactions to settlers when they heard who she was. Most pretended unconcern, watered by a faint respect. Some were impressed, or awed. And some few pretended as though they’d never heard the phrase, had no idea what the Devil’s Hand might have to do with them, or they the Devil’s Hand.
Rarely did anyone attempt to kill her.